A conversation with Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen: inspiring customer service is the USP that determines success for a strong airline

A conversation with Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen: inspiring customer service is the USP that determines success for a strong airline

‘For me, the customer journeys and information modelling were a highlight. The visualisations showed us quite clearly where we were and how we could improve for our customers,’ says Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen.

Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen ist innerhalb der Swiss International Air Lines für den Bereich „Product Management Customer Servicing“ der Lufthansa Group verantwortlich. Zu seinen Aufgaben zählt dabei die Entwicklung einer übergreifenden Customer Servicing Strategy, die Steuerung der internen und externen Provider sowie die operative Steuerung aller weltweiten Customer Service Center mit rund 2.500 Mitarbeitern.

Speaking about what successful customer service is, how this area has changed so quickly and where he sees potential for the Lufthansa Group, Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen reveals all in a conversation with Sebastian Horat from for​you​and​your​cus​tom​ers.

Sebastian Horat: You’ve been Senior Director, Head of Customer Service & Relation Management for the Lufthansa Group for about a year now. How has this area evolved under your leadership? Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen: In previous months I was able to see for myself just how the importance of customer service was starting to rapidly evolve in transformative and sustainable ways. At the beginning customer service was first and foremost defined as responding to customer queries. We’ve since been placing more emphasis on anticipating customer needs earlier and earlier, being proactive in our interactions with customers and thereby offering them an optimal experience with SWISS and the entire Lufthansa Group.

Thanks to the measures we’ve started and already implemented, even, for inspiring customer service, we are definitely on the right path and the understanding of the importance of this topic has increased sharply within the entire Group.

Sebastian Horat: On a recent flight with SWISS, I met a group of French travellers who could not stop raving about their customer experience with your airline. They praised the chocolate, the Mövenpick ice cream and the attentiveness of the staff. How will you improve the customer service experience even more?

Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen: The focus is clearly on customer centricity. Ultimately, all of the airlines are flying the same aircraft with the same seats, so these days it’s no longer possible to stand out from the crowd by focusing on those aspects. What makes a difference now is having a personalised interaction with each individual customer, even on automated channels. We see that the importance of these channels is changing and we need to establish ourselves there. I’ll give you an example: a majority of our customers still contact us by telephone. I assume that this will change significantly and that messaging services, for example, will make the telephone obsolete for many tasks that customers until now have done over the phone. And we need and want to be prepared for that.

Sebastian Horat: So you are focusing on opening up new channels to customers even more quickly, managing them better and loading them with better information. How would you like to achieve that? Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen: At the moment we have two challenges. One is that we want to establish an independent functional organisation for our different business units – SWISS, Lufthansa, Austrian. Our aim is to standardise and harmonise basic things so that we can be more efficient when developing new products and tools for customers. The use of the Exploded View from foryouandyourcustomers clearly demonstrated to us that the more different processes and systems involved in a project, the more complex and intensive it is to implement the project, make improvements and realise new ideas and business models in general.

That’s why establishing a functional organisation is hugely important, in order to create new standards and working methods. And in doing so we are being especially careful not just to harmonise processes but also to consider which department can do what the best and what we as the entire Group can learn from that. Another challenge is to establish our own product management system in the customer service area, where we want to implement a customer experience strategy, including in tangible products, and run through this strategy Group-wide as one would in life cycle management – products like our chatbot, which we just rolled out successfully across all three airlines.

Sebastian Horat im Interview

Sebastian Horat: You mentioned the Exploded View. This model comprises multiple layers, which foryouandyourcustomers uses to offer companies direction in their digitalisation process. Which of these layers did you find to be the most tangibly transparent to you at the start of your work with the Lufthansa Group and where did you find it the most difficult to gain a full perspective? Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen: Each layer is very complex in itself and at the start I was lacking the reference points for layers that I had not yet come into contact with prior. I found it fascinating to experience the model as a whole and get to know how the individual layers relate to each other, depend on each other, and what requirements arise from them for our business. When you transfer the model layer by layer to your own business, it quickly becomes exponentially more layered. But that is exactly what is so special about the Exploded View: it helps visualise this complexity as it grows to unbelievably mammoth proportions, makes it understandable and tangible.

Sebastian Horat: In previous months you worked with foryouandyourcustomers and use the Exploded View to analyse an internal project. How satisfied were you with the results?

Exploded View Example

The Exploded View model gives companies guidance in their digitalisation process.

Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen: The added value that the Exploded View offered us was that it made processes and dependencies for topical areas and spheres of responsibility clear and showed where there were problems that needed fixing. In this project, where different departments and divisions in the Group were involved in improving the customer experience, it showed exactly that: the quickly growing complexity of consolidating and standardising different systems across all three airlines posed great challenges for us. Internally the project had stalled because mapping out the things that in theory seemed to be actually very trivial was not that easy when it came to practical implementation for three airlines.

Sebastian Horat: In the course of this collaboration we worked together to create customer journeys, use case diagrams and a system landscape and information model. Which of these tools and the corresponding results did you ultimately find to be the most useful? Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen: For me, the customer journeys and information modelling were a highlight. The visualisations of the customer journeys showed us quite clearly where we were and how we could improve for our customers. And thanks to information modelling we were able to see that we were using different language in our departments to describe the same thing. And that we would need to develop a shared language that everyone – from Marketing to IT – understands. We did that with information modelling and are benefiting greatly from it.

Sebastian Horat: Looking back, how would you rate the cooperation with foryouandyourcustomers? Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen: Excellent. From day one our cooperation was shaped by a very pleasant relationship, paired with an equal amount of professionalism and an eye for detail. I was personally quite impressed. In terms of the project itself, it was unbelievably helpful to illustrate the complexity and make it tangible for every single stakeholder or the entire project team.

Sebastian Horat: Considering your experience as a whole, would you recommend the Exploded View to other companies? Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen: I would certainly recommend this method. Topics around digitalisation, of which customer service is just one area, are no longer simple to visualise these days. A method like the Exploded View is a huge help here.

Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen

Senior Director, Head of Customer Service & Relation Management, Lufthansa Group

Martin Apsel-von zur Gathen is in charge of ‘Product Management Customer Servicing’ within Swiss International Air Lines for the Lufthansa Group. His responsibilities include developing an overarching customer service strategy, steering internal and external providers and managing the operation of all global customer service centres with around 2,500 employees.

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